If you’re under 30 and registered to vote, the president – along with his political advisers – is talkin' 'bout your generation.
President Barack Obama will made an appeal to youth voters Thursday in a commercial-free “youth town hall” broadcast on BET, MTV and CMT – his second event this week focused on energizing a key voting bloc for his party.
Young people have provided substantial boosts for the Democratic Party for the last three election cycles, lending the lion’s share of their support to Democratic candidates in presidential and congressional races in 2004, 2006 and 2008.
And they were particularly visible participants in Obama’s campaign, appearing in unprecedented droves at campaign events and donating money at higher-than-usual rates. Two-thirds of voters under 30 backed Obama in the 2008 election – a percentage that made the disparity between young and older voters the largest in the history of exit polling.
But can the man who rode what looked like a spectacular generational wave two years ago inspire young people to turn out for somebody named Michael Bennet or Russ Feingold or Joe Sestak?
Peter Levine, the director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, sees why the strategy is an appealing one to the White House. “Campaigning to young people generally works,” he says. “And it’s cost-effective. It’s a good place to put your money because young voters aren’t usually being targeted by other groups, so your message isn’t diluted.”
In tight statewide races like those in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – where the president has recently held rallies targeting young people – a small uptick in youth turnout could help Democrats beat expectations of the much-talked-about “enthusiasm gap” between the president’s party and the opposition.
“This is an interesting strategy and it’s a good group for him to go after, but the yield is not going to be dramatic,” says Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center. “He’s trying to make sure [youth turnout] doesn’t fall below 2006 levels.”
That could be tough. According to Pew’s measures, the percentage of young Democrats who say they have “given a lot of thought” to the upcoming election has plummeted 20 points since the last off-year election in 2006. (Young people who identify as Republicans, by contrast, are even more engaged now than they were during the 1994 midterms.)
That doesn’t mean that young people’s political affiliations have changed dramatically since 2006, although there has been some narrowing of Democrats’ advantage with youth voters since 2008. In 2006, 52 percent of voters under 30 described themselves as Democrats or Democratic-leaning; that number jumped to 62 percent in 2008 and is back to 56 percent now.
But they’re just not all that interested in the election.
In the latest NBC/WSJ poll, only 23 percent of voters aged 18 to 34 said that they have a high level of interest in the 2010 elections, compared to almost 50 percent of all respondents.
Democrats are generally less engaged than Republicans this midterm cycle, Keeter says, and that trend is even slightly exaggerated among young people, who have been hit particularly hard by the economic recession.
“Objectively, young people may actually have been hurt by the recession more than many older voters,” he says, adding that they’re likely to have difficulty finding jobs without prior experience and are more vulnerable to firings than longtime employees.
“The fact that they’re still loyal to Democrats is somewhat amazing,” Keeter says. “Young people aren’t angry at the party in power, but the toll has come in their level of enthusiasm.”
Another reason that young people might not turn out, Levine adds, is their feeling that Obama’s hopeful campaign messages have not resonated in his presidency.
“They voted overwhelmingly for a particular flavor of change,” Levine says. “They’re either still hopeful or disappointed, and persistent unemployment for a young person is pretty disappointing.”